J. Lentzsch: Polytheisten und Christen in den angelsächsischen Reichen

Beharrungsvermögen und Verdrängung. Polytheisten und Christen in den angelsächsischen Reichen des 7. Jahrhunderts

Lentzsch, John
Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde 105
Berlin 2018: de Gruyter
Anzahl Seiten
X, 277 S.
€ 109,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Mateusz Fafinski, Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin

The study of the interaction between Christianity and polytheism in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms at the time of the conversion to Christianity is an interesting and worthwhile subject that can help bring more insight into the social and political outlook of Britain in the 7th century. John Lentzsch’s book, which is a publication of his PhD thesis on the subject defended in 2016 at the University of Paderborn, is therefore a welcome addition to the body of scholarship on the topic.

The author puts forward three main research questions: how did it come to pass that Christianity and polytheism functioned next to each other in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the 7th century? What was the position of polytheists in the Anglo-Saxon society of the time? How long did polytheism hold on? He attempts to answer them by presenting a detailed narrative of the conversion of all the main regions of Anglo-Saxon England.

Lentzsch’s book is clearly structured. A chapter on key concepts precedes seven chapters analyzing the seven regions of 7th century England – respectively Kent (pp. 52–95), Essex (pp. 96–118), East Anglia (pp. 119–141), Northumbria (pp. 142–170), Wessex (pp. 171–200), Mercia (pp. 201–226) and Sussex (pp. 227–241). These regional studies are followed by a chapter on the results of the work and a short appendix, presenting a list of hammer-and-spear-shaped pendants found in Kent. While such a geographic structure might be helpful in presenting the results of the work in a clear and organized way, the usage of the term ‘Heptarchy’ throughout the work (e.g. p. 16) can be seen as antiquated and obscuring the political development of each region. Thus, regions such as the Hwicce or Lindsey are treated exclusively as parts of Mercia, even though the trajectories of their polytheist/Christian coexistence present, as Lentzsch himself notes, distinctive own characteristics.

The first chapter on key terms discusses two concepts shortly – “the Anglo-Saxons” and “paganism”, and one in greater detail – “law”. The introduction to law in the context of Anglo-Saxon polytheism is perhaps the strongest part of the book. It puts the Anglo-Saxon legal situation in relation to the Continent and brings literary sources into play with a necessary degree of caution; it also includes a short and succinct linguistic analysis. It is most welcome to see Anglo-Saxon law being interpreted as a dynamic entity. What could have helped the argument even more would be a short discussion of the manuscript transmission of the laws. The legal focus constitutes a noticeable part of the book, and plays a major role wherever legal sources are available.

The seven chapters on particular regions of Anglo-Saxon Britain all follow a similar structure. In each of them an attempt is made to lay out the trajectory of Christian/polytheist interaction, and each case culminates in the proposed approximate date for the disappearance of polytheism from the “open view”. These dates, and the phases leading to them, are neatly summarized in the conclusion (p. 247). One could view them as a bit optimistic – with polytheism disappearing from “open view” in Kent, Essex, East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia by the 660s, with only Wessex and Sussex stretching the “coexistence” phase to the 680s. Whether there really were “no openly practicing polytheists in Northumbria” (p. 168) at the time of Oswiu’s death might be challenged. Perhaps the reliance on legal sources and Bede overstates the success of Christianity in the 7th century?

Lentzsch very skillfully describes the difficult beginnings of the Christian missions in various regions of Anglo-Saxon England. These difficult beginnings are followed by a gradual marginalization of polytheists, chiefly through legal and ecclesiastical means. The aspect of the power struggle between aristocracy and royals is not neglected – with, as in the example of East Anglia, Christianity as initially a religion of the elites (p. 140). The narratives for Kent and Northumbria are perhaps the most complete, bringing into play a wide range of sources including archaeological material. Lentzsch tends to see syncretism as a viable strategy, drawing extensive comparisons from the examples of Raedwald’s inclusion of Christian symbols in his temple (p. 58-59) and the presence of Christian and pagan elements on the Benty Grange helmet (p. 212). Lentzsch steers clear of controversy, although one could perhaps wish for a more critical approach towards the narratives of conversion presented by Bede, whom he acknowledges at the very beginning as the main source for the period (p. 2). His source base includes archaeological material, but the inclusion of even more material culture could have been helpful. When it comes to secondary literature, one could wish for more place in the discussion for works by John Blair and Patrick Sims-Williams.

At times Lentzsch’s work seems more like a summary of the conversion of various regions of Anglo-Saxon England than an account of the coexistence of polytheists and Christians in the 7th century, but this is to be fully expected, taking into account the limitations of the source base. Overall, the book is written in clear, well-structured language, with a well-defined chronological progression of argument. It is easy to follow the author’s train of thought, and the seven regional sub-studies are easily comparable to each other thanks to their well-defined arrangement. There are some minor editorial mistakes that to no great degree diminish the value of the book. The reader might be surprised by the complete absence of maps – the book’s argument would lend itself very well to spatial and geographical presentation.

Lentsch’s book provides us with a relatively exhaustive summary of the Christian-polytheist relations in the 7th century, even if this summary is maybe a bit too uncritical towards Bede, its main source. Nevertheless, Lentsch brings into play all the essential aspects – the legal, literary, narrative and archaeological sources in his well-structured approach. The answers offered to the research questions might be open to debate, but are clearly well argued. One could wish for more such detailed studies that are not limited to just a one case-study region but take in view the whole of Anglo-Saxon England. Lentzsch’s work can serve as a handy reference tome to the interaction between polytheists and Christians in 7th-century Anglo-Saxon England.

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